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I chose this book in a recent swap from Read It Swap It because it's set around the same time period as 'Garrow's Law', the BBC TV series which I've been enjoying recently. I'd never heard of the author, David Liss before but when I checked on Amazon, his books seemed to consistently receive high ratings. When I further discovered that Mr Liss was an American, it was with some trepidation that I began to read. I've found previously with historical fiction of any kind that writers who can truly recreate the language and culture of a country other than their own are pretty thin on the ground and frequently their prose is scattered with glaring anachronisms which tend to throw the reader out of the story.
Ben Weaver has been charged with a crime he didn't commit and the judge at his trial was determined to find him guilty irrespective of the evidence that proved otherwise. Shortly after his conviction, a stranger slips him the means to effect his escape from Newgate Prison and Ben realises that not only does his conviction prove that someone wants him dead but that someone else is equally determined to see him go free. Once out of prison, Ben sets about trying to prove his innocence which requires him adopting a disguise to enable him to move undetected around both the less salubrious areas of London such as the docks and slums as well as the drawing rooms of the wealthy. His investigations take him into a world peopled by crime lords, spies and political schemers where he soon discovers that proving his innocence may require a higher price than he's prepared to pay.
This novel is the second in a short series featuring Ben Weaver and I wondered whether I'd be able to follow the story but the more salient points from the back story were smoothly incorporated into the text and I had no problem in working out what had gone before. In effect, this is a stand-alone novel.
My initial worries about whether an American would be able to accurately portray Georgian London to the satisfaction of a native were also completely unfounded. From the first page, David Liss proves he's more than capable of holding his own alongside any British historical mystery writer. He drops the reader straight into the drama of Ben's trial for the murder of Walter Yate. Here the author has created a courtroom scene showing a judicial system which is conducted more like a spectator sport than a means of dispensing justice, with a jury who've patently been nobbled, a judge determined to find the defendant guilty not just of the crime of which he's charged but also of being a member of the Jewish faith. The judge's casual racism during his summing up is probably very authentic but very disturbing.
To the author's credit, he even manages to inject a bit of humour into these proceedings provided by one of the witnesses. The man has admitted to lying and when asked 'Have you never heard of perjury?', he replies 'Certainly, that's them right there' and points in the general direction of the jury. I immediately pictured this witness as looking something like Baldrick!
The story is told in the form of a memoir written in the first person with Ben recounting his experiences. This device allows the reader to share in Ben's thought processes and works very well with this kind of novel and the language and phraseology used could almost convince me I was reading a book written by someone from that time. Quite often with historical mystery novels, the author seems to be more adept at either the historical detail or concentrate more on the mystery but David Liss manages to balance both elements very well so neither one is overshadowed by the other.
With regard to the back story, I don't think it's giving too much away to say that Ben loves a woman, Miriam, who turned down his offer of marriage because of the nature of his career which she felt was too dangerous for him to be a good provider for herself and any children they may have. Instead she's chosen to reinvent herself by marrying a Christian, a potential candidate for Parliament and an integral part of this story. Despite her marriage, there is still plenty of unfinished business between Ben and Miriam, or Mary as she's now known.
Once Ben has escaped from jail, which isn't without some difficulty, he sets about his investigation, masquerading as Matthew Evans, newly arrived in London from the West Indies and he soon decides that the key to his misfortunes is one, Dennis Dogmill, a tobacco merchant with something of a brutal way of conducting business. Though Ben discovers Dogmill is guilty of many crimes, he soon finds out that he isn't acting alone and he will need to take his investigations right into the heart of the parliamentary system itself.
David Liss's creation of Georgian London is a very plausible one filled with brutality, danger and political intrigue. The story is set in 1722, the year of the first election following George I's accession to the British throne which was a time of Jacobite plots and poor policing coupled with growing unrest amongst London's labouring poor. The picture he paints conjures up images similar to those depicted by Hogarth and Gillray of a drunken, poverty-stricken underclass ruled by their unscrupulous and cruel masters. The author's plotting, coupled with excellent characterisation give this story a wonderful authenticity.
Ben, himself, is a likeable if somewhat ambiguous character. As a former pugilist, long before the Marquis of Queensberry came up with his rules, he's still pretty handy with his fists which stands him in good stead in his investigation and he isn't afraid to use a certain brutality of his own if needs be. This violence is often juxtaposed with a compassion for his fellow human beings which seems a little anachronistic at times but also very believable because of the period in which the book is set. I don't think I've ever read a book with a Jewish main protagonist and it certainly added an extra dimension to the story. Although the author doesn't belabour the point, he certainly gets the message across that Jewish people were regarded as second class citizens in the eighteenth century.
Despite the main themes of the book being concerned with politics and business, it isn't a boring story with plenty of action added into the mix. The reader can't help but draw comparisons with present day politicians and captains of industry and come to the conclusion that corruption in business and politics is as old as time.
This was an engaging and entertaining read with a lead protagonist who fits right into his time period and yet has enough charm and social conscience to make him accessible enough to twenty-first century readers. I have every intention of reading the forerunner to this book which deals with the South Sea Bubble and also the one that follows. Ben Weaver, though a man of his time, is someone I grew to care about during the course of this book and it left me wanting to read more of his story.
This book is available new from around £7 or used copies from 1p plus postage. The books in the Ben Weaver series are:
1. A Conspiracy of Paper
2. A Spectacle of Corruption
3. The Devil's Company